“Is Dorothy L. Sayers still worth reading?” Well I’ve been reading her lately (in anticipation of the Taproot Theatre’s upcoming production of Gaudy Night), and my unsurprising answer is yes, but why? After all, her hero – Edwardian aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey – seems at first blush to be just the kind of plummy, pompous plutocrat that we’ve lost all taste for. Although Sayers’ works are drenched in the sort of stylish tweedy Englishness that enthralls Downton Abbey fans, they have not one jot of the latter’s sympathy to the plight of those below stairs, siding firmly and unselfconsciously with the snobs. Wimsey’s man Bunter (one of the great butlers) makes Jeeves look like an anarchist, so well does he know his place. Continue reading “Crime: Is Dorothy L. Sayers still worth reading?”
As I set out to read my way through my alphabet of crime, I was a little worried about the letter ‘I,’ but it turned out to be quite a little Anglo-French treasure trove. Here are three great authors in our mystery “I’s,” each with their own distinct voice.
Graham Ison is one of the many British authors represented in our collection through those nice little Severn House hardcover editions, and we have several titles in each of his two mystery series. His contemporary police procedurals feature stolid – okay, stodgy – veteran Detective Chief Inspector Harry Brock and his mouthy working class partner Detective Sergeant Dave Poole, who banter and grouse their way through the sordid array of casework, somewhat in the vein of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe or Bill James’ Harpur and Iles series. A good early title, Light Fantastic finds the duo drawn into the posh lives of the rich and fabulous, but it isn’t long before they’re back on the seamy side again.
Ison’s other series are historical mysteries set on the British home front during the Great War, where crime rages on despite the epic struggles overseas, and featuring the investigations of Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle, a man as respected for his dogged determination as he is avoided for his (very entertaining) mean temper. Hardcastle is a man who doesn’t suffer fools, and of which there is an inexhaustible supply. (Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse comes to mind, as does John Mortimer’s Rumpole). Hardcastle’s Armistice, in which the murder of a prostitute turns out to have unexpected political ties, is a fine early entry in this non-chronological series.
Just down the shelf is Claude Izner (a pseudonym for a pair of sister bookstore owners from Paris – sounds heavenly, no?) whose series featuring Victor Legris – also a Parisian bookseller – is drenched with the sights, sounds and personalities of the City of Light, circa 1890. Legris’ first case involves a Murder on the Eiffel Tower, seemingly achieved via a most unorthodox weapon – a bee sting. Historical mystery fans get all the intriguing period detail they came for, and what a great time and place to visit. I can just imagine all the historical personages waiting in the wings as we approach the fin de siècle. A good choice for fans of Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin series.
The France burned into the pages of Jean-Claude Izzo’s books could not be further from Izner’s belle époque. Izzo is one of the best noir writers, and (like the more celebrated Stieg Larsson) died far too young, leaving a small but indelibly affecting body of work – ruthless kick-in-the-teeth depictions of a world gone mad. (Readers of this column will know I have a soft spot for this kind of hard writing). Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy begins with the aptly named Total Chaos, in which loose cannon Fabio Montale, who in his youth used to run with a bad crowd and now runs with a worse (he’s a cop), hunts for justice in the seething, squalid, racially charged ghettos of Marseilles. No justice to be found, he’ll settle for revenge. Fabio eventually gives up the police force as too corrupt, but cannot stop wrestling with the evil that surrounds him and ravages those he loves; his further descent into the underbelly of Europe continues in Chourmo and Solea. It doesn’t end well, but then you knew it wouldn’t, didn’t you?
Among crime readers, there are certain qualities that serve as points on our criminal compass. For example, authors who put a scalpel to the subtle psychological underpinnings of crime contrast with those for whom swift action on every page is essential. Another scale lies between whodunnits with a humorous or “cozy” feel, and those on the darker, grittier end of the spectrum. And just as with diners who always order the full 5 spicy stars at a Thai restaurant, there are readers who devour the bleakest and blackest of hardboiled authors with perverse relish. For these readers, I suggest Derek Raymond, the deeply influential but little-known godfather of British noir.
Raymond’s life story is fascinating – rich kid turned criminal, exiled to France – but his reputation rests on a series of five novels featuring a detective sergeant working out of Police Headquarters, aka “the factory,” on the unsolved deaths of largely forgotten people – drunks, derelicts, junkies and the insane. The detective (we never learn his name) is haunted by the death of his daughter at the hands of his wife, an event which committed him utterly and unrelentingly to seeking justice for the nameless, faceless “trash” written off by an increasingly alienated, materialistic society. The detective’s path grows darker and more tortuous from He Died with His Eyes Open to the assembly of a dismembered corpse and its story in The Devil’s Home on Leave, to How the Dead Live, featuring a bizarre crime that plunges us past sanity into murky madness.
Then we come to Raymond’s masterwork: I Was Dora Suarez, a book so shockingly graphic that Raymond’s erstwhile publisher was purported to have vomited on his desk just a few pages in. We witness in disturbingly objectified detail the ghastly murder of a young prostitute, and the offhand killing of an elderly friend. Then we join our detective as he surveys the carnage and is transfixed, and transfigured, by what he sees. It is a harrowing reading experience, and one that dares us to witness the true face of crime, not merely as a riddle to be solved or a wrong to be righted, but as the most tragic failure of individuals and of society. It is very hard to come out the other end of I Was Dora Suarez and not be somehow altered by the experience. Reading the book reminds me of the first and only jury I ever sat on, sifting through the facts and the evidence in a case that led to us finding a man guilty of the murder by strangulation of three drug addicted prostitutes. Like jury duty, reading Raymond demands a certain responsibility of the reader.
As with his other “factory novels” – Raymond termed them his “black novels” – I Was Dora Suarez begs us see how the most unspeakable crimes differ only in degree from the little deaths and depredations endured by many of the living, day after day. The real crime is not the manner of death, but the manner of life. Long unavailable, all five of Raymond’s factory novels have been reprinted by Melville House. If you’re up to the challenge, they’re incomparable.
Think of British TV mystery and you may conjure up images of teacup wielding dowager sleuths, peering through the foxgloves at some suspicious goings on about the Village green. Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple. Arsenic and tweed. But there’s a whole other side to British Crime – a tough contemporary side where hardened detectives battle it out with society’s most depraved and disturbing felons on the streets. In addition to longer narrative arcs and fewer commercial interruptions, the British seem to have a knack for depicting compromised coppers with truly dark sides. American prime time TV might make much of hinting a detective’s brush with alcoholism or insanity; in British crime TV, it’s almost a given. Here are some of my favorite gritty Brit crime shows.
Best known among these is probably Helen Mirren’s star turn as embattled detective Jane Tennison, struggling against twisted baddies and her own sexist colleagues in Prime Suspect. Fans of this might also enjoy another Lynda La Plante created series featuring a lady cop – Clare Blake – whose personal and professional lives get muddled in highly inappropriate ways: The Commander. Then there’s tenacious private eye Cordelia Gray, hero of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a series loosely based on the novel by P.D. James, and single mother DCI Janine Lewis juggling her messy life in Blue Murder.
Of course there are plenty of wonderfully messed up male detectives, from Robbie Coltrane’s a-bit-too-criminal psychologist Cracker to John Hannah’s portayal of Ian Rankin’s hardened Edinburgh detective John Rebus to Idris Elba as the brilliant but troubled John Luther whose ability to enter the criminal mind leaves him badly scarred. This is also the case with quirky genius Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood, based on one series by the prolific Scottish author Val McDermid. Then there’s the wonderfully twisted odd couple Dalziel & Pascoe, one bent the other a bit too straight, based on the novels of Reginald Hill.
My latest discovery while browsing the stacks was another Lynda La Plante series, Trial and Retribution, which has got some of the darkest crimes and wonderfully shocking scenes I’ve ever seen on TV (particularly one unforgettable bit in which Richard Grant playing a tortured manic schizoid presents DI Pat North with a little gift – a scene that made my wife leap off the couch and run around the house screaming), together with the usual assortment of battered, flawed detectives. We chain watched all five seasons, and can’t wait ’til more come out. In the meantime, I’ve just checked out Case Histories, based on the novels by Kate Atkinson. Not quite as dark, but it looks good. There’s also the cold case squad in Waking the Dead, and what I’ve seen so far compares well with the best American crime drama.
Fans of gritty crime psychodrama will find many other fine British series in our catalog, from The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, standalones based on Minette Walters’ The Sculptress or Val McDermid’s Place of Execution, and the wonderfully perplexing mini-series, Collision. (And yes, of course, we have Miss Marple too).
Arriving at the D’s in my Alphabet of Crime, I want to pay homage to Arthur Conan Doyle, or more specifically to his greatest creation. Sherlock Holmes is especially hot right now, but as arguably the most beloved series character in the history of fiction, he never really goes out of style. Of course you can find all of Holmes’ adventures in our library catalog, together with scads of books about him, films and TV shows starring him, collections of latter day Holmes stories and novels and series based on his exploits. With so much wonderful Sherlockiana out there, there are bound to be some fogbound alleyways in the Holmes canon that you haven’t yet explored. Here are a few of my favorites.
Speaking of fogbound alleyways, could there be a foggier London than the backdrop of Simon Cellan-Jones’ Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking? The atmosphere is perfectly eerie, but the star attraction Rupert Everett in the title role, matching wits with a villain whose ghastly crimes are more Silence of the Lambs than Hound of the Baskervilles. Before he’s through, Holmes has devoured to R. von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, adding to his spooky sixth sense the bona fides of a proto-profiler. Towering and tortured, Everett plays the pallorous, pertiacious Holmes to an irresistible twist, Oscar Wilde’s brooding shadow.
Of all the many latter-day novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, my favorite is Mitch Cullin’s standalone, A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is 1947, Dr. Watson is long gone, and the nonagenarian beekeeper Holmes grapples with his own mortality, the death of Edwardian moral certitudes in the ashes of Hiroshima, and the alarming dimunition of his mental faculties. What emerges is perhaps the most intimate portrayal ever of the mythic Holmes as a man and a mortal. A rare treat for Holmes fans, and anyone who loves an intriguing story expertly told. (Readers seeking more traditional Holmes pastiches should check out Steve Hockensmith’s delightful series starter Holmes on the Range, and David Pirie’s grim and gritty The Patient’s Eyes, first of a series featuring author Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Holmes.)
So who’s you’re favorite Holmes? Benedict Cumberbatch? Robert Downey Jr.? Jeremy Brett? Basil Rathbone? Make room for Vasiliĭ Livanov, who portrayed Sherlock in several Russian films and TV episodes in the 1970s and 80s, including Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Viewed by many as the definitive portrayal, Livanov’s earnest, softer-edged Holmes — a vast intellect couched in the unprepossessing body of a kindly professor — is less arch and manic than that of Jeremy Brett, casting the stories in a refreshingly reassuring light. Such was the popularity of his Holmes in the former Soviet Union that Livanov was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his a valuable addition to the canon, and for bringing Sherlock Holmes to millions of avid viewers behind the Iron Curtain.
So how about you: what are your favorite Sherlock Holmes pastiches and portrayals?